Recent News from Engadget

Over 100 warship locations have been faked in one year

Abuses of location technology might just result in hot political disputes. According to Wired, SkyWatch and Global Fishing Watch have conducted studies showing that over 100 warship locations have been faked since August 2020, including the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and the US destroyer Roosevelt. In some cases, the false data showed the vessels entering disputed waters or nearing other countries’ naval bases — movements that could spark international incidents.

The research team found the fakes by comparing uses of the automatic identification system (AIS, a GPS-based system to help prevent collisions) with verifiable position data by using an identifying pattern. All of the false info came from shore-based AIS receivers while satellites showed the real positions, for instance. Global Fishing Watch had been investigating fake AIS positions for years, but this was the first time it had seen falsified data for real ships.

It’s not certain who’s faking locations and why. However, analysts said the data was characteristic of a common perpetrator that might be Russia. Almost all of the affected warships were from European countries or NATO members, and the data included bogus incursions around Kaliningrad, the Black Sea, Crimea and other Russian interests. In theory, Russia could portray Europe and NATO as aggressors by falsely claiming those rivals sent warships into Russian seas.

Russia has historically denied hacking claims. It has a years-long history of using fake accounts and misinformation to stoke political tensions that further its own ends, though. And if Russia is connected, the faked warship locations might be a significant escalation of that strategy. Even though such an approach might not lead to shooting matches, it could get disconcertingly close.

People first drove on the Moon 50 years ago today

NASA just celebrated another major moment in the history of Moon exploration. The New York Timesnoted that July 31st, 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Lunar Roving Vehicle’s first outing — and the first time people drove on the Moon. Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin took the car on a stint to collect samples and explore the lunar surface more effectively than they could on foot.

Scott and Irwin would eventually drive the rover two more times (for a total of three hours) before returning to Earth. The Apollo 16 and 17 missions each had an LRV of their own. There was also a fourth rover, but it was used for spare parts after the cancellation of Apollo 18 and further missions. All three serving models remained on the Moon.

Early development was problematic, in no small part due to the lack of real-world testing conditions. They couldn’t exactly conduct a real-world test drive, after all. The team eventually settled on a collapsible design with steel mesh wheels that could safely handle the Moon’s low gravity, lack of atmosphere, extreme temperatures and soft soil.

The LRV was modest, with a 57-mile range, four 0.19kW motors and an official top speed of 8MPH. It was also expensive, with cost overruns bringing the price of four rovers to $38 million (about $249 million in 2021 dollars). It was key to improved scientific exploration during the later stages of the Apollo program, though, and it was also an early example of a practical electric vehicle — humans were using a battery-powered ride on the Moon decades before the technology became mainstream on Earth.

We wouldn’t count on humans driving on the Moon any time soon, although that reflects the progress made in the 50 years since. NASA and other space agencies are now focused on robotic rovers that can explore the Moon without worries about crew safety. Those humans that do go on rides will likely use autonomous vehicles. Think of this anniversary as celebrating a first step toward the technology you see today.

Rivian may build its first international EV factory in the UK

Rivian might not be focused solely on expanding its US production. Sky Newssources claim the EV designer is in talks with the British government to build a manufacturing plant near Bristol. The discussions aren’t yet in late stages, but the focus is reportedly on production for the vehicles themselves rather than batteries, although there was room for an all-encompassing Tesla-style gigafactory.

Rival proposals have come from Germany and the Netherlands, Sky claimed. If the UK plant did go ahead, though, the government could supposedly invest “well over” £1 billion (about $1.39 billion). Rivian declined to comment.

There’s certainly pressure to commit to international expansion. Rivian has just one factory, a former Mitsubishi plant in Illinois, and it only just unveiled plans for a second American facility that might also produce batteries. That output could limit potential sales, especially outside of North America, and might hamper Amazon’s electric delivery van rollout.

This could help Rivian scale to counter rivals like Tesla and Volkswagen, both of which are rapidly growing their EV manufacturing bases. The UK intends to ban sales of combustion engine cars in 2035, and that means switching local production to EVs. A Rivian factory could help the country transition to EV manufacturing, not to mention encourage sales that would make public acceptance that much stronger.

Apple pulls anti-vax social app over misinformation (updated)

Mobile app shops are cracking down on one of the higher-profile communities spreading anti-vax misnformation. Bloombergreports that Apple has removed Unjected, a hybrid social and dating app for the unvaccinated, for “inappropriately” referencing the COVID-19 pandemic’s concept and themes. While Unjected bills itself as a place to find others who support “medical autonomy and free speech,” social posts on the site have included false claims that vaccines modify genes, connect to 5G and serve as “bioweapons.”

The app founders are also embroiled in a fight over their Android app. Google told Unjected on July 16th that it had two weeks to remove the misleading posts from its app to avoid a Play Store ban. The developers responded by pulling the social feed. However, co-creator Shelby Thompson said Unjected planned to defy the request by restoring both the feed and the offending posts.

We’ve asked Apple and Google for comment. Unjected still has a presence on Instagram despite that social network’s anti-misinformation stance, although that account mostly promotes its views on “freedom” and only occasionally mentions falsehoods, such as incorrect claims that mRNA vaccines alter DNA. We’ve asked Facebook for a response as well.

Unjected is small compared to mainstream social networks, with roughly 18,000 app downloads (according to Apptopia). However, the crackdown clearly serves as a warning — Apple and Google won’t tolerate apps that knowingly accept and encourage the creation anti-vax content, even if they aren’t directly producing that material.

Update 7/31 6:18PM ET: Apple told Engadget that Unjected violated rules demanding reliable COVID-19 information from trustworthy sources, like health agencies and medical institutions. The tech firm further accused Unjected of less-than-honest tactics. The app producer reversed changes made to comply with App Store rules, and encouraged users to help it dodge those rules by avoiding the use of telltale words. Trying to cheat the system is itself grounds for a ban, according to Apple. Don’t expect Unjected to come back.

DOJ: Hackers behind SolarWinds attacks targeted federal prosecutors

The perpetrators of the SolarWinds hacks apparently targeted key parts of the American legal system. According to the AP, the Justice Department says hackers targeted federal prosecutors between May 2020 and December 2020. There were 27 US Attorney offices where the intruders compromised at least one email account, officials said.

The victims included some of the more prominent federal offices, including those in the Eastern and Souther Districts of New York as well as Miami, Los Angeles and Washington.

The DOJ said it had alerted all victims and was taking steps to blunt the risks resulting from the hack. The Department previously said there was no evidence the SolarWinds hackers broke into classified systems, but federal attorneys frequently exchange sensitive case details.

The Biden administration has officially blamed Russia’s state-backed Cozy Bear group for the hacks, and retaliated by expelling diplomats and sanctioning 32 “entities and individuals.” Russia has denied involvement.

It’s not certain if the US will escalate its response. The damage has already been done, after all. This further illustrates the severity of the attacks, however, and hints at the focus — they were clearly interested in legal data in addition to source code and other valuable information.

Hitting the Books: Buck Rogers flew so that NASA astronauts could spacewalk

You’ve all seen the iconic picture of the US astronaut riding gracefully upon his NASA-built MODOK chair. That astronaut was Bruce McCandless II, Houston’s capsule communicator during the moon landing mission, Challenger crew member, and the driving force behind America’s ability to conduct operations outside of the stuffy confines of space shuttles and international stations. Without McCandless, there’s no guarantee the US would have EVA capabilities today. Wonders All Around, exhaustively researched and written by McCandless’s son, Bruce III, explores McCandless the elder’s trials and tribulations during NASA’s formative years and his laser-focus on enabling astronauts to zip through space unencumbered by the mass of their ships.

Wonders All Around cover
Greenleaf Book Group

Copyright @ 20201 Bruce McCandless III. Published by Greenleaf Book Group Press. Distributed by Greenleaf Book Group. Design and composition by Greenleaf Book Group and Kimberly Lance. Cover design by Greenleaf Book Group, Shaun Venish, and Kimberly Lance. Cover image courtesy of NASA, photographed by Robert L. “Hoot” Gibson


In his long leaden days of waiting for a spaceflight, my dad found the route to redemption on the back of an aging cartoon character. From the afternoon in December 1966 that he first tried out the Manned Maneuvering Unit in a Martin Marietta simulator, he was hooked on a vision of a gas-propelled jetpack that would allow astronauts to operate outside their spacecraft. This vision had an obvious pop-culture antecedent. In the 1920s a comic-strip character named Buck Rogers — a rock-jawed, All-American World War I veteran — succumbed to the effects of a mysterious gas he encountered while working as a mine inspector. He fell into a deep sleep and woke after five centuries of slumber to a strange new world of spaceships, ray guns, and Asian over-lords. Though he initially traveled this new world via an antigravity belt, a device that allowed him and his best gal, Wilma, to leap great distances at a time, Buck eventually acquired a svelte and evidently omnidirectional jetpack. He eventually ventured into space in an adventure called Tiger Men from Mars, and his exploits in the cosmos changed America’s vision of the future forever. Millions followed Buck’s adventures in the funnies, on radio, and in movie serials. Among Buck’s imitators and spiritual heirs are Flash Gordon, Brick Bradford, John Carter of Mars, and Han Solo.

A host of talented men and women spent significant amounts of time and money to wrestle that jetpack out of the funny papers and into the space shuttle. None worked harder, though, than Bruce McCandless and his chief collaborator, an Auburn-educated engineer and Air Force officer named Charles Edward (“Ed”) Whitsett, Jr. Whitsett was a pale, bespectacled individual, mild-mannered but tenacious. He had a head start on my father. He’d been thinking and writing about jetpack technology as early as 1962. In a sense, he was trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist yet: Namely, how could an astronaut venture outside his or her spaceship and perform constructive tasks in an environment with no oxygen, with extreme temperature fluctuations, and in an orbital “free fall” that would leave the spacefarer lolling in the practical equivalent of zero gravity? Alexei Leonov of the Soviet Union and American Ed White had proven that extravehicular activity was possible, that men could survive outside of their space capsule, but basically all they’d done was float. How could a man move from one part of a spaceship to another, or from one spacecraft to another craft, or from a spacecraft to a satellite, in order to make inspections or repairs? None of these needs really existed in the early sixties, when the programs of both nations were still just trying to fire tin cans into low Earth orbit and predict, more or less, where they would come back down. But clearly the needs would eventually arise, and various methods were proposed to address them.

In the mid-sixties, the Air Force assigned Whitsett to NASA to supervise development of the Air Force’s Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Gene Cernan’s failed test flight of the AMU on Gemini 9 in 1966 — the “space-walk from hell,” as Cernan called it — set the jetpack project back, but it never went away. McCandless, Whitsett, and a NASA engineer named Dave Schultz worked quietly but assiduously to keep the dream alive. They enlarged and improved the AMU all through the latter half of the decade and into the seventies. In the “Forgotten Astronauts” wire story that portrayed him as a washout in 1973, my dad mentioned the reason why he wanted to stay in the manned space program despite not having won a crew assignment on either Apollo or Skylab. “McCandless,” said the article, “has helped develop the M509 experimental maneuvering unit. The Skylab astronauts strap it on like a backpack and propel themselves Buck Rogers — like around the Skylab interior. [He] wants to build a larger operational unit to perform space chores outside the shuttle.” And that’s exactly what he did.

Though the Skylab M509 tests in 1973 and 1974 were a resounding success, resulting in the triumph of the jetpack concept over both rocket boots and the handheld maneuvering unit, Whitsett and McCandless didn’t rest on their laurels. Over the next several years, using whatever time and funding they could scrape together, the team made multiple upgrades — eleven, by one count — to what was now being called the “manned maneuvering unit,” or MMU. The bulbous nitrogen-gas fuel tank of the ASMU was replaced with two streamlined aluminum tanks in the rear of the unit, each of which was wrapped in Kevlar. The number of propulsion nozzles was increased from fourteen to twenty-four, positioned around the jetpack to allow for six-degrees-of-freedom precision maneuvering. Smaller gyroscopes replaced those used on the ASMU, and, as space historian Andrew Chaikin has noted, the ASMU’s “pistol-grip hand controllers, which were tiring to operate in pressurized space suit gloves, were replaced by small T-handles that needed just a nudge of the fingertips.” The MMU’s new arm units were made to be adjustable, to accommodate astronauts of all sizes. Painted white for maximum reflectivity, the unit was built to survive the 500-degree fluctuation in temperatures (from a high of 250 degrees F to a low of minus 250 F!) that an astronaut might encounter in space.

By 1980 the machine weighed in at 326 pounds. Like the AMU and the ASMU before it, the MMU was designed to fit with or “over” the astronaut’s pressure suit. Shuttle astronauts wore a newly designed suit called the Extravehicular Maneuvering Unit, or EMU, a two-piece marvel of textile engineering made up of fourteen layers of Nylon ripstop, Gore-Tex, Kevlar, Mylar, and other substances. Power for the jetpack’s electronics was supplied by two 16.8-volt silver-zinc batteries. Two motion-control handles — the translational hand controller and the rotational hand controller — were mounted on the unit’s left and right armrests, respectively, and a button activated an “attitude-hold mode,” which used motion-sensing gyroscopes to direct the firing of the thrusters to maintain an astronaut’s position in space.

The machine had been tested in every way its designers could imagine. A representative of a local gun club visited Martin Marietta and shot the MMU’s nitrogen fuel tank with a .50 caliber bullet to ascertain whether the tank would explode if pierced. (It didn’t.) The jetpack was run through hundreds of hours of simulations. At my father’s urging, a gifted and intense Martin Marietta project manager named Bill Bollendonk subjected the device to space-like conditions in the company’s thermal vacuum facility. The MMU was no longer a “far out” experiment, as Mike Collins once called it. It was now a promising space tool. Unfortunately, for the moment, it was still an unused space tool. American astronauts remained on Earth, as NASA struggled to produce its next-generation orbital workhorse, the space shuttle.

Telegram’s video calls can now accommodate up to 1,000 viewers

Telegram has expanded the group video calling feature it launched in June to be able to accommodate more participants — a lot more. The latest version of the messaging app now allows up to 1,000 people to join a group video call. While the number of participants that can broadcast video from their camera or their screen remains capped at 30, an additional 970 people can tune in and watch. 

As Telegram said when it first launched the feature, it was always planning on increasing the number of people that can join a group chat as it expands its voice and video calls to support live events. In its new announcement, the company said it’ll keep on increasing the limit. In addition, Telegram has updated the video messaging feature so users can watch them at a higher resolution. Users can now also share their screen with sound during 1-on-1 video calls and set their messages to auto-delete after one month instead of within a day or a week like the older options allowed. 

Telegram’s updated media editor makes the brush width smaller upon zooming in, allowing users to draw finer details on photos and videos. Other new features include more password reset options and animated emoji. For the Android app, the latest version also includes support for 0.5x, 1.5x and 2x playback speeds, as well as new sending animations. Meanwhile, iOS users will have access to a new in-app camera that can use all their device’s zoom levels, as well as the ability to forward messages to multiple recipients. 

Telegram
Telegram

‘Horizon Forbidden West’ is reportedly delayed to 2022

PlayStation fans will have to wait until 2022 to play Horizon Forbidden West, according to Bloomberg. The outlet reports the company has delayed its next big PS5 and PS4 exclusive to next year, pushing it back from its current 2021 holiday season release timeframe.

Ahead of today’s news, Sony hinted at a potential delay last month when the company published an interview with PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst. “For Horizon, we think we are on track to release this holiday season,” Hulst said at the time. “But that isn’t quite certain yet, and we’re working as hard as we can to confirm that to you as soon as we can.” At the moment, it’s not clear what’s behind the delay.

If Sony does in fact delay Forbidden West, it won’t be the only first-party exclusive to miss its previously announced 2021 release date. Earlier in the year, the company delayed both Gran Turismo 7 and the next God of War entry to 2022. Just last week, Bethesda also delayed Ghostwire: Tokyo, its upcoming PlayStation 5 and PC horror game from Tango Gameworks, to early 2022.    

Twitter launches bug bounty contest to detect algorithmic bias

Twitter has laid out plans for a bug bounty competition with a difference. This time around, instead of paying researchers who uncover security issues, Twitter will reward those who find as-yet undiscovered examples of bias in its image-cropping algorithm.

Back in April, Twitter said it would study potential “unintentional harms” created by its algorithms, beginning with its image-cropping one. It started using the algorithm in 2018 in an attempt to focus on the most interesting parts of images in previews. Some users criticized how Twitter handled automated cropping, claiming that the algorithm tends to focus on lighter-skinned people in photos.

“In May, we shared our approach to identifying bias in our saliency algorithm (also known as our image cropping algorithm), and we made our code available for others to reproduce our work,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “We want to take this work a step further by inviting and incentivizing the community to help identify potential harms of this algorithm beyond what we identified ourselves.”

Twitter says this is the “industry’s first algorithmic bias bounty competition” and it’s offering cash prizes of up to $3,500. Rumman Chowdhury, director of Twitter’s Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency and Accountability team, wrote in a tweet that the company is running the contest “because we believe people should be rewarded for identifying these issues, and we can’t solve these challenges alone.” The winners will be announced at a Twitter-hosted DEF CON AI Village workshop on August 8th.

US watchdog rejects Blue Origin’s protest of NASA lunar lander contract

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has dismissed protests from Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics over NASA’s decision to hand out a single $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX as part of its Human Landing System program. On Friday, the watchdog said NASA’s “evaluation of all three proposals was reasonable and consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the announcement’s terms.”

When Blue Origin first challenged the lunar lander contract in April, the company claimed the selection process was “fundamentally unfair” because it didn’t get a chance to revise its bid. To that point, NASA could afford to give SpaceX the contract because the company agreed to modify its payment schedule. Blue Origin also took issue with the fact that the space agency selected a single contractor for the project when the initial announcement had called for two manufacturers to be involved.

In reviewing NASA’s decision, the GAO says the space agency “did not violate procurement law or regulation when it decided to make only one award.” It notes NASA gave itself the flexibility to hand out a single contract, multiple awards or none at all when it first announced the Human Landing System program. 

What’s more, the GAO concluded there “was no requirement for NASA to engage in discussions, amend, or cancel the announcement” due to the amount of funding it had available for the project. Notably, the GAO also points in its press release that its role is not to judge the relative merits of a contract decision. Both Blue Origin and Dynetics had argued that NASA chose the most “high risk option available” since SpaceX’s bid involved its Starship rocket, which at that point in the procurement process had yet to land in one piece.

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction. We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution,” a spokesperson for Blue Origin said following the decision. “We’ve been encouraged by actions in Congress to add a second provider and appropriate additional resources to NASA’s pursuit to return Americans to the Moon. We’re also very encouraged by Administrator Nelson’s comments over the past week that reaffirm NASA’s original intent to provide simultaneous competition. The Human Landing System program needs to have competition now instead of later — that’s the best solution for NASA and the best solution for our country.”

The decision comes mere days after Blue Origin founder and former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos offered to waive $2 billion in payments from NASA in return for a lunar lander contract. Following Blue Origin’s protest, NASA told SpaceX to stop work on the Human Landing System while the GAO sorted out the challenge. Today’s decision allows the project and the Artemis program more broadly to move forward unless Blue Origin asks the US Court of Federal Claims to examine the case. 

Update 2:28PM ET: Added comment from Blue Origin.